Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Getting Carried Away

Pulau Weh’s diving is famous for its raging currents, which can change direction quicker than most girls change their handbags. Arus Paleh is one of the more renowned dives here, its name in Sumatran translating as Bastard Current; not being averse to the odd expletive, I liked the sound of this one.

Yudi gave us a sagely dive briefing, his earnest warnings countered by toothy grins and pulled cheeky faces. It’s hard to take him seriously, it really is. We had a plan, and knew what to do in the case of us getting dragged away from the dive site by the flow of water from the West. And in we went. The currents were moderate, and Iain shrugged at me…a bit of a disappointment. But you can’t rely on Nature to do what you want, and it always makes me laugh when divers complain of things like shitty visibility underwater. What do you want, Sonny Jim…your money back? Hilarious.

So we didn’t complain (a first for me), and it was two more dives on this site before we got what we bargained for…and then some. Arus Paleh is a spot between two tiny islands off the coast of Weh, and is set around a small, spiky pinnacle of rock. At certain times of day, the water rushes through this point at incredible speeds. When we arrived for this dive, it was raging: excellent. We jumped in, and quickly made our way to the bottom. Sheltering as close to the bottom as possible, we moved from rock to rock in the face of a strong current. Kicking hard against it as we fought for the next objective, it was hard work, and I was going through my air like cold beer. We tried several times to get over the ridge and down into the next valley, and it was absolutely impossible. Iain and I were laughing into our regs as we hung onto rocks for dear life; let go here, and by the time you surface, you could be a few miles away. This happened a few years ago at the shop, when they lost two divers; as night fell, the boatmen simply gave up and went home. After a bollocking by the boss, they went out at dawn, and found them alive but shaken up, drifting at sea. A bit dodgy, but I suppose the money they saved on accommodation for the evening could have gone towards another dive? I shouldn’t laugh. But I do.

I managed to make the top of another smaller ridge, and was cowering behind a huge boulder, getting my breath back and marvelling at the schools of fish nonchalantly swimming against these currents in search of food. A plateau streched out below me, sea fans waving in the face of this ocean might, the rocks sloping up to the next island; the cause of this liquid bottleneck. I popped my head over the top of the boulder. The current rushed past my ears like the fierce wind on a hilltop, those that fill your head and cut out all other sound, the warm water buffeting my face. It’s a rush to feel that kind of power, and actually feel the roar of the sea envelop you. As I turned, coming back to the present after being lost in my own thoughts, I saw my companions signalling we were making a move. I stayed a moment or two longer, enjoying the feeling of solitude, clenching my teeth on the mouthpiece of my regulator to prevent the sea ripping it from my mouth…one hand holding my mask as I felt the water tugging it from my face like some aquatic poltergeist.

Diving is meditation. Even in the face of hazardous nature, you feel free. It’s something to do with the feeling of weightlessness, the lack of man-made sound, the immediacy of the moment. People take to diving to escape. Whatever problems you may have on the surface, these are rearely dwelt upon below it; you forget all else. My mentor, Gerd Schulte, loves wrecks for this reason. We’ve both dived them alone. As contemplation goes, nothing beats drifting slowly through a submerged hulk and imagining its last moments, and those who perished as it did so. they don't call it The Cruel Sea for nothing.

We had another dive nearby a few days later. This time, the current was even worse. I’d jumped in too soon, and the boat had to come round and pick me up. The guide said he hadn’t said to go just yet. I’d just heard “We’ll enter the water here” and that was good enough for me. You have to make a pillock of yourself now and again, though.

Myself and Iain were diving with Carine, a French woman my age, who was taking a leisurely Divemaster course for the inclusive diving. A bit too leisurely for my liking, but more on that later. We jumped in and, as we made our way to the bottom, it became apparent that this was going to be somewhat of a challenge. Iain became separated from us, out of sight within seconds; and as myself and Carine tried to move behind some boulders for shelter, the current had us. Torn from our grip on the rocks, we were ushered out to see rapidly, the slope of the island disappearing deeper and deeper below us as we fought to stay together. Quickly, the sight of the bottom was gone, and we were out in blue water. Ascending to the surface, Carine began panicking about Iain. I told her not to worry, Grumpy is a good instructor, has lots of experience, and can look after himself. The boat picked us up, and minutes later Iain was safely back on board, too. We shared a laugh at the impossible dive we’d just attempted: I reckoned we needed a drink after that. A few days later, we were to make a dive that would make these two days pale into insignificance.

Diving With A Gremlin

We were down at Rubiah Divers within an hour of arrival, dumping our kit into crates and grilling the staff and fellow divers about the various sites. We were assigned a guide named Yudi; a tiny, scrawny fellow with wild streaked hair and a constant lopsided, toothy grin. You could have told Yudi that the world was going to end in half an hour, and he’d just grin at you. He immediately reminded me of Stripe, the leader of the Gremlins: mischief personified.

Up and out at 6am the next day, the shop was a hive of activity, Divemasters rushing around kitting everyone up. Myself and Grumpy, being working divers, don’t like anyone touching our kit. I just prefer to be the last one to check it before I jump into the ocean. As Scarface said “Who put this thing together? Me. Who do I trust? Me…that’s who.” We were to be plagued by the boatboys during this fortnight, constantly twiddling the valve knobs behind our heads as we prepared to dive. It annoyed me, but really riled Grumpy.

But I digress. We headed for Canyons and Tekong for the first day’s dives. I was not to be disappointed. Dropping to a maximum 36 metres, we were pushed and pulled by the surge close to the rocky shore; the seas are pretty fierce around here, this being the first land the vast sea meets as it hits Indonesia…it’s literally the front line. Canyons’ topography is amazing, huge crevices and gullies between boulder formations, the flanks lined with rows and rows of huge gorgonian fans waving in the current like small trees on a blustery day; truly stunning. Visibility was good for at least 25m, and I had never seen such a wide variety of fish species in one dive before. We drifted on the strong current, and I could see plateaux below plateux underneath us. This site goes down to around 55m, if my memory serves me correctly. On finishing this dive, I encountered a beast I had been longing to see: the Napoleon Wrasse. These creatures can grow to 2m in length, and are a myriad of blues and greens. Beautiful in an ugly way, their heads are dominated by a huge hump and lips Mick jagger would be proud of. They are also fairly tame, and will hang around as long as you don’t make any sudden movements. This character was happy to let me swim around and float alongside him for a good ten minutes before he tired of me and dropped into the depths. I surfaced elated: not bad at all for a first dive. My log for this dive actually states “Indonesian diving is the best in Asia.” This place is unmissable, believe me; especially when you consider that it works out around £12 per dive with pro discount, and us having our own gear. Cheaper than chips.

There are a few average dives arund the island, but even these are better than a lot of places you may dive in Malaysia or Thailand. The other standouts for me were Shark Plateau at Tokong, and Peunateung. The former was where two of my favourite experiences occurred; on our first dive there we were drifiting with the current, and I was a little further out than the pack. Someone drew my attention to a huge marbled ray travelling alongside us, closer to the group than myself. I cursed myself for being so distant, and sped up to keep pace with the creature. In a flash, it banked like an aircraft, and hurtled past me; one huge eye rotating to examine me as it cruised within a couple of metres of me. To look into the eyes of a huge creature underwater really is a special moment in your life I can do no justice with words; you feel a connection with it that you immediately think impossible: that you acknowledge each other. Sometimes you catch yourself saying “Hello, mate…” in your head. I know how that sounds. This benign animal would bear me no malice; I would prefer to look into the eyes of the Great White (from inside a cage, obviously). To stare and be stared at by the ultimate apex predator of the ocean would be incredible. I’m told it is quite a thought-provoking experience to be scrutinised by something which is figuring out whether it can devour you. Barracuda also stalk the waters of the island, and at Tokong I fought to hang onto a rock, observing a 100+ strong school effortlessly facing into the speeding currents, their sleek missile-shaped bodies perfect for mocking all that nature could throw at them. At one point I ascended, and drifted through them, amazed at the fact that there were two species in this school, separated by an invisible line. A baby blacktip shark completed a great dive here.

Peunateung has immense vertical drop-offs and walls covered in fans. This site is deep, dropping down to around 75m in places. There was a deep wreck I wanted to dive, and the shop insisted myself and Grumpy do a “check-dive” to make sure we could cope with the narcosis and challenges this presents. This was despite the pair of us haughtily showing them our logbooks; Grumpy’s an experienced instructor, and I’d done 134 dives in the last 5 months, one of those to 60m, and 80% of them wreck penetrations. So we were a bit pissed off at the perceived slight, but had a good dive. I was thankful I had none of the bad ju-ju I’d had at Apo Reef at 60m; I’d gone 20m beyond my previous limit in one dive there, and had scared the shit out of myself. I’m adventurous, but not suicidal. What I was going to witness in the few days before the wreck-dive was going to reinforce that.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Food For Thought In Paradise

The other day I was berated by a screaming old lady on a deserted beach footpath. She howled at me and pointed at my cargo-short-clad legs as she shepherded her two grandchildren past me, shielding the young girl’s eyes. I was a bit bemused, never having had this effect on an old woman before. I’m sure Wayne Rooney’s experienced something similar. Now my Mum’s always said I’ve got skinny legs, but I’ve often countered this matriarchal critique with the fact that a lesbian friend at work loves seeing me in shorts; this doesn’t really get me anywhere on the romance front, obviously…but I think it’s just as flattering as a gay man saying you look hot. Don’t knock any attention, as you’ll be old one day, and women will walk past you in the street as if you’re not even there. I’m not looking forward to that. Not that I’m constantly mobbed now, but this old lady’s reaction still perturbed me a little. I mean, like she had room to talk? She had a face like a blind cobbler’s thumb, but I wasn’t going to stop dead and howl at her like Donald Sutherland in Invasion Of the Body Snatchers. Looking back, I think it was her Muslim sensibilities, rather than my knobbly knees, which had really got her goat.

I’d arrived in Banda Aceh, right at the Western tip on Sumatra, Indonesia, a couple of days before. Iain had suggested we head there for a bit of diving, as the Malaysian reefs are shot at, what with the rising temperatures. I couldn’t finish my trip on that depressing note. So we’d arranged visas at the embassy in KL (only to find you could get a visa on arrival at the new airport for half the price…the office opened the day we landed). Incidentally, I’d turned up like a right plum at the office to collect the visa, in my shorts; I mean, come on…it was absolutely roasting in Kuala Lumpur. And these bastards expect you to turn up in a fucking tuxedo to collect an overpriced stamp in your passport? Luckily a Russian I was chatting to outside the embassy had a bright orange sarong he lent me to cover my offensive legs (I’m seeing a pattern emerging here). I couldn’t help but grin as one of the guards nodded appreciatively and smiled as I minced past him.

Flying in to Banda Aceh is sobering. As the plane banks over the Andaman Sea and drops into the city, the contrast between rusty old tin rooves and the newer, green-tinted ones paints a stark picture of how the 2004 tsunami tore through this community, killing 167,000 people. The city sits in a horseshoe of hills, and the people of this lowland did not stand a chance. A fishing boat ended up on top of a house two miles inland, such was the irresistable force of nature. Everyone I met lost someone. Every single one. It really makes you wonder what it must be like to suffer so much loss; I can't begin to imagine. Yet they are a resilient people, and have recovered as swiftly as they can; and they are still quick to smile. Of all the peoples I’ve encountered in Asia, I like the Indonesians the best.

We arrived at the ferry port, and had to run for the slow boat about to leave. Old Grumpy complained he wanted to take the faster boat, which left a little later, but myself and a stray traveller we’d picked up at the airport, Little Ian, were happy to take the big boat and just enjoy the ride. We smiled apologetically at the hundreds of locals waiting for the four sweating white men to board the boat and let them get home. Sharing a bit of banter with the locals, as well as the hardest doughnuts on the planet, made the journey pleasurable.

The usual palava awaited us on Pulau Weh, the small island ninety minutes from Aceh: the minivan drivers eager for your custom. Ours was so eager, he actually drove off without Little Ian’s rucksack, but luckily it was still there when we returned five minutes later. Always, always make sure you see the bag go into the van or onto the roof yourself.

Another diver joined us, and we immediately hit it off. I’d taken him to be Scandinavian, and his name was Roman. “I’m French” he told me “but I fucking hate the French.” I laughed. He lives in Paris, so I can see his point. And despite my French-baiting, I don't mind them, really...in fact, I even quite like some of them (especially you, Coralie) So myself and Roman were going to get on, alright. After a scenic hour in the van, we arrived at what felt like the end of the line. Rubiah Beach is a quiet little place. A dirt car park by the beach and a small row of local food joints gives way to an up-and-down ramshackle pathway through another private cove and some of the most rundown accomodation I have ever come across. Luckily we found a place with a good restaurant and some new huts run by a cheeky, and rather sexy diminutive woman called Ley. She had three impossibly cute kids, and was divorced from an Austrian man. I liked her straight away, she was straight and talked no nonsense.

So, gear dumped in our mosquito-riddle abodes, it was time to arrange some diving. I picked my way down the 40° slope between the huts, the turquoise sea visible in the gaps between the trees below me. I was going to like it here. And from what I’d heard of this place from other divers, it should have been magnificent. It was.